“Chained for Life” is a fascinating if daft parable about normative beauty as it appears on the big screen.
The director of the festival fave “Go Down Death” has made a movie within a movie within a movie, all of them clever inversions of Todd Browning’s 1932 cult classic about circus sideshow folk, “Freaks.” It takes its title from a 1952 film starring actual Siamese twins, and its marching orders from an opening quote by the late film critic Pauline Kael, about how the movies are filled with unnaturally beautiful people.
“And why not? We love to look at them.”
A German “auteur” is making his first movie in America. Herr Director (“Dick Tracy/What About Bob/Hook” child star Charlie Korsmo) has an amusingly inconsistent Werner Herzog accent, and a vision.
“Marked for Life” he calls his film, and he’s cast a pretty starlet, Mabel (Jess Weixler from “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” and TV’s “The Son”) to play a blind woman seeking treatment at a strange hospital/sanitarium in the late 1950s.
The hospital has giants and dwarves, a bearded lady, Siamese twins and all manner of unusual looking folks, “freaks” as they were called in the less-enlightened past, “Undesirables” as Herr Director will eventually re-title his movie. And he won’t hear of using makeup or digital effects to make them this way.
“Nein! Ze suffering must be REAL!”
Thus, the co-star for this “mad visionary” director’s leading lady must be played by Rosenthal. He is played by British actor and TV presenter Adam Pearson, whose neurofibromatosis made him the daring choice to host programs such as “The Undateables” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and who appeared alongside Scarlett Johansson in “Under the Skin.”
Mabel may be “slumming” on an indie film with a “hot” director, hoping to get a career bounce. But this film, with its blind woman/Elephant Man romance, “exploitative” to some, is going to be challenging on a very human level. And by God, whatever pause Rosenthal’s facial tumors, the huge folds of skin that all but hide his eyes, may give her, she’s going to prove she’s up to it.
She is solicitous, encouraging, open, offering to help the non-actor cast opposite her learn to act for the movies. In a series of close-ups, we see him ask her how to show “fear,” “happiness” and “empathy.”
She’s reassuring even as he says “children and dogs are terrified of me,” and that this IS his “happy” face.
“That director, he’s intimidating!”
“Not really. It’s his accent. It makes him sound like a villain.”
As they bond, we’re treated to an Altmanesque view of movie-making, the organized chaos of a film set, overheard dizzy conversations where the pretentious actor (Stephen Plunkett) playing the German-accented surgeon at the hospital recites Shakespeare and a producer confuses it “for that movie about the rich little orphan girl.”
They’re shooting in a real re-opened old Carnegie-financed hospital, where real staff and patients keep their distance in other wings. If the crew runs roughshod over parking or off-limits areas and a staff member tries to find who on the shoot to complain to, or if a cop shows up about this “man with marks on his face” case we see talked about on TV, the crew, to a one, say “You need to see Trentolini.”
Trentolini does not exist. It’s just a way of blowing you off, unworthy non-film person.
We see scenes play out, busted takes and retakes. Herr Director, in one of the film’s many delicious (or eye-rolling) drawn-out scenes, explains the concept of “making your ENTRANCE” to non-actor Rosenthal. He does this, with Rosenthal on camera, in closeup, about to enter a shot in a pool of light, explaining to him off camera by reciting the entire opening of “The Muppet Movie” until the moment Orson Welles shows up for his “entrance.”
And as we watch dailies, the footage that’s already in the can, we watch Mabel watch Rosenthal and see the wheels turning about how she sees this warm, British and self-aware “deformed” man and wonder about what she values and her own prejudices.
The film’s roving camera on a busy set is reminiscent of many movies-about-making-a-movie, especially Michael Winterbottom’s “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.” There’s overlapping dialogue, competing agendas, little snippets of actors’ vanity (beauty treatments at the end of the day), a director losing his concentration to his star questioning the “reality” of a blind woman “touching” someone’s eyes, physically, and deciding he is “beautiful.”
“Vy are you bringing zis to me, now?” His scene was written as “a poetic truth, a rhapsodic truth,” so don’t question it.
I got a kick out of seeing Korsmo, who hasn’t acted on camera in 20 years (he’s a law professor at Case Western Reserve University), ham his way through this obvious poseur, an artiste who claims he grew up in a circus, but probably isn’t even German.
Weixler lets us see what an expressive actress she can be, just with her face. Shadows fall across her appearance as she ponders Rosenthal and questions her snap judgement of this unattractive non-actor she’s agreed to co-star with.
Max (Plunkett), the shallow pretty boy in the cast? He has no such self-reflection about Rosenthal.
“You’d make a great Richard III!
Several members of the cast joke about “membership” in this production, quoting that infamous line from “Freaks” — “One of us!” But that’s emblematic of how they treat these “undesirables.” Cast and crew stay in a nearby hotel, the “freaks” stay on set, in the hotel, and guard the equipment.
Which leads to them making their own movie, after hours, one that further flips the script on “normal” and “beautiful.”
It’s a lot to chew on, and I’m not sure it makes absolute sense.
“Chained for Life” invites repeat viewing and “cult film” status, pretty much by design. Whatever writer-director Aaron Schimberg’s other intentions, he’s made a must-see movie for film buffs, one you must-see again just to get all the inside jokes.
MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, nudity
Cast: Jess Weixler, Adam Pearson, Stephen Plunkett, Charlie Korsmo
Credits: Written and directed by Aaron Schimberg. A Kino Lorber release.
Running time: 1:31